A Georgia federal district court recently examined whether a plaintiff added additional defendants to defeat federal diversity jurisdiction to try to send the case back to Georgia state court.
Federal district courts have diversity jurisdiction over civil actions where the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000, and there is complete diversity of citizenship of the parties. However, complete diversity doesn’t exist unless each defendant is a citizen of a different State from each plaintiff. When a plaintiff names a non-diverse defendant just to defeat the federal court’s diversity jurisdiction and authority to hear a case, they may be guilty of fraudulent joinder.
The plaintiff was employed by a trucking company as a truck driver. The driver’s wife signed the company’s passenger release of all passenger liability claims. The release permitted her to ride as a passenger in trucks driven by her husband in exchange for releasing the trucking company and its employees and agents from “any liabilities, losses, claims and demands of any nature or type arising out of or related in any way to any loss, damage or injury, including death.”
The driver also signed a driver’s release of liability in which he released the trucking company and its employees and agents from “any liabilities, losses, claims and demands of any nature or type . . . arising out of or related in any way to any loss, [or] injury” resulting from any negligence, in exchange for allowing a passenger to ride with him.
In December 2015, the driver was driving a tractor-trailer for the trucking company. His wife was resting on a mattress in the sleeper berth of the semi. She was injured when one of the mattress’s metal springs came through the mattress and punctured her skin, resulting in a severe, life-threatening infection—leaving her with permanent injuries. The mattress was designed, manufactured, and sold by the mattress manufacturer. The springs in the mattress were designed, manufactured, and sold by the spring manufacturer. The plaintiffs alleged that the trucking company, through its trucking manager, “failed to select and maintain safe mattresses” in the semi tractor and failed to inspect the mattress that injured the driver’s wife. The plaintiffs further claimed that the manager’s job duties included the “supervision, inspection, and maintenance of the [Vehicle] and the subject mattress.”
The plaintiffs brought claims against the mattress manufacturer and the spring manufacturer for strict product liability and negligence, and sought punitive damages. The driver’s wife also asserted claims against the trucking company manager for gross negligence and against the trucking company for gross negligence under the theory of respondeat superior. While the spouse’s release would, on its face, seem to bar the driver’s wife’s claims, the plaintiffs argued that the wife had been legally incompetent her entire adult life. As such, they argued that the spouse release wasn’t binding.
The trucking company and its manager removed the case to federal district court based on diversity jurisdiction. The driver and his wife were citizens of Georgia. The trucking company was a citizen of Nebraska. The mattress manufacturer was a Tennessee citizen, and the spring manufacturer was a citizen of North Carolina.
The manager was a citizen of Georgia, but the trucking company contended that he was fraudulently joined. The trucking company and its manager filed a motion to dismiss.
What is Fraudulent Joinder?
United States District Judge Steven D. Grimberg wrote that “when an action is removed from state court, the district court first must determine whether it has original jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s claims,” quoting an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision.
Given the severe injuries the driver’s wife allegedly suffered, the amount in controversy was easily satisfied, the judge said. However, because the trucking company manager was a citizen of Georgia, complete diversity was lacking, and removal was improper unless he was fraudulently joined. Fraudulent joinder is when a plaintiff names a non-diverse defendant just to defeat federal diversity jurisdiction. When this happens, the district court must ignore the presence of the non-diverse defendant and deny any motion to remand the matter back to state court. The removing party bears the “heavy burden” of proving fraudulent joinder and must show by clear and convincing evidence that:
- there is no possibility the plaintiff can establish a cause of action against the resident defendant; or
- the plaintiff has fraudulently pled jurisdictional facts to bring the resident defendant into state court.
The determination of whether a resident defendant has been fraudulently joined must be based upon the plaintiff’s pleadings at the time of removal, supplemented by any affidavits and deposition transcripts submitted by the parties, Judge Grimberg wrote.
The driver requested a new mattress for the tractor-trailer, which he received sometime in May 2015. The trucking company’s drivers were required to submit all requests for service or equipment so that they could be documented in its system. The records showed only one request by the driver for a new mattress—made in May 2015. That mattress was the one that allegedly injured the driver’s wife. However, the driver testified that he asked for another new mattress in October and in November 27, 2015. Both times his request was based only on the fact that his current mattress was hurting his hips.
The manager was the shop manager of the company’s Marietta facility from 2015 through the time of his deposition in August 2019. Before that, he was in a position that “concerned replacing mattresses in the trucks.” He was not, however, responsible for selecting mattress suppliers or the types of mattresses used by the trucking company in its trucks. The manager testified that, if a driver complained about a mattress and a “tech or somebody at the front counter” refused or failed to replace the mattress, he would discipline that person. However, mattresses were not a specific item to be inspected during preventative maintenance evaluations of the trucking company’s tractor-trailers. The manager said that the driver never said to him or in his presence that the truck’s mattress “was failing, in disrepair, or needed to be replaced.” Nor did the manager’s job duties in 2015 involve “processing or approving parts requests” (which would have included the mattress) or directly supervising those responsible for processing such requests. The manager denied playing any role in a request by the driver for a new mattress and denied having had any responsibility for inspecting mattresses provided to the drivers.
Judge Grimberg found that despite the plaintiffs’ argument otherwise, the testimony didn’t “unequivocally show[ ] that the trucking company manager was involved in denying” the driver’s request for a new mattress. At best, the plaintiffs could only demonstrate that the manager was present during one instance in either October or November 2015 when the driver asked for a new mattress because the one he had hurt his hips. The plaintiffs presented no evidence in support of the bare allegations in their complaint that the trucking company manager was responsible for inspecting or replacing the truck’s mattress.
The Trucking Company Manager’s Duty
Judge Grimberg also explained that “to recover for injuries caused by another’s negligence, a plaintiff must show four elements: a duty, a breach of that duty, causation and damages.” The trucking company and its manager argued that the plaintiffs couldn’t show that the manager owed any duty to the driver’s wife since there was no general duty to protect the world from an unreasonable risk of harm. They also asserted that they didn’t allege how the manager breached any such duty.
The plaintiffs contended that they pleaded the manager was responsible for supervising, inspecting, and maintaining the semi and, therefore, the mattress. But Judge Grimberg said that when a court is faced with declarations and deposition testimony in opposition to a motion to remand, the question isn’t whether the pleading adequately alleges a claim. Instead, the issue is whether, in light of the allegations in the complaint and the evidence presented, the defendants have shown by clear and convincing evidence that there is no possibility the plaintiffs can establish a cause of action against the non-diverse defendant.
The manager could only be personally liable to the driver’s wife, the judge found, for those tortious acts that he personally committed or directed to be done. In other words, the manager must have had some direct role in, or responsibility for, inspecting or replacing the mattress or making sure that it was inspected and replaced. In light of the testimony supplied by the defendants, the plaintiffs failed to explain how the manager owed a duty to the driver’s wife, or how he breached such a duty. The plaintiffs didn’t point to any evidence that the manager was responsible for filling or approving requests for equipment or for inspecting mattresses in 2015. They couldn’t rely on the bare allegations of the complaint in the face of the sworn testimony that the trucking company manager had no responsibility for inspecting or replacing the mattress that injured the driver’s wife.
To the extent the plaintiffs argued that the federal district court should find that a claim against the manager was possible because the state court denied the trucking company and its manager’s motion to dismiss in the original case, the plaintiffs were mistaken. Unlike a motion to dismiss ruled on by a Georgia court, a federal court assessing fraudulent joinder can examine evidence beyond the allegations in the pleadings. The state court didn’t have (and couldn’t have relied on) the deposition testimony the defendants provided in support of their fraudulent joinder arguments. The plaintiffs were required to come forward with some evidence to dispute that testimony, but they failed to do so. When a defendant presents affidavits or deposition transcripts that are unrebutted by the plaintiff, the court cannot resolve the facts in the plaintiff’s favor based solely on unsupported allegations in the complaint.
Thus, the plaintiffs failed to show even the possibility that the manager could be found personally liable for negligence under Georgia law. As a result, the district court concluded that the defendants demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that the manager was fraudulently joined. His citizenship was therefore ignored for purposes of assessing the existence of diversity jurisdiction. Because there was complete diversity without the manager, the federal district court had subject matter jurisdiction over this case. As a result, the court could consider the trucking company and its manager’s motion to dismiss. Whitehead v., Southerland, Inc., 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57759, 2023 WL 2766012 (N.D. Ga. March 31, 2023).
Having a knowledgeable lawyer who has extensive experience in handling automobile accident and truck accident cases every day really does make a difference. Whomever you hire as your personal injury car accident lawyer must understand Georgia law, how to apply the state’s personal injury laws, and whether a case should or must be filed in federal court.
Our experienced Atlanta based personal injury law firm is happy to answer your questions. We offer free consultations to all prospective clients. Contact an Atlanta personal injury attorney at Tobin Injury Law 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 404-JUSTICE (404-587-8423).